The Genetic Technology Act: A climate solution?

Taida Nando for Distilled Post

The Uk government has passed the Genetic Technology Act, a landmark move that will  surely be celebrated by smallholder farmers and environmental groups across the country. In  addition to reducing pesticide use and enhancing food production, the act offers an exciting  opportunity to identify and develop climate-resilient crop varieties.  

What is the Genetic Technology Act? 

Simply put, the Genetic Technology Act will streamline the regulatory and approval process  for 'precision-bred' crops, which target genetic changes not attainable through traditional  breeding or natural processes. 

Royal Assent was received from the King, as well as a majority of support in the House of  Commons, resulting in the law being passed on 23rd March 2023. This is a step forward in  improving crop breeding techniques in England, as well as enabling the development and  marketing of gene-edited crops. 

What is gene editing? 

Gene editing is a technique that makes precise and targeted changes to DNA. For agriculture,  this can be applied to food crops that are more resilient to local environmental pressures, such  as climate changes, diseases and pest pressures.  

One of its celebrated benefits is that the technology builds on the increasing availability of  pangenomes (set of genes) and whole genome DNA sequences for many crop varieties, which  offer a level of accuracy and predictability that in earlier attempts has been unavailable when  attempting to modify crop genomes. 

Climate resilience and food security 

On a societal level, the technology is a step forward in increasing biodiversity in cropping  systems. Increasing the formulation of crops is especially important in a world where over  2.5 billion people are dependent on them. Globally, wheat is one of the most widely farmed  crops, and rising temperatures are affecting farming practices. The technology may enable the  introduction of heat-tolerant wheat crop traits that maintain high yields.

Smallholder Farmers 

For smallholder farmers seeking to create a space for themselves in the agriculture market,  genetically editing technologies offer them a chance to become active players. For these  farmers, the technology will accelerate the delivery of improved varieties better resistant to  climate change effects such as increased drought.  

The technology ensures that commercial crop varieties' genes are edited directly in elite  breeding lines, eliminating the need for the backcrossing technique usually used in  conventional plant breeding. This reduces the time needed to develop an improved variety by  nearly two-thirds and eliminates the linkage drag that is impossible to eliminate in  conventional backcross breeding. Taking a step back from what this act means to farmers in the UK, the passage may serve as a  stepping stone for low-and middle-income countries seeking to ensure food security.  

Risks of genome editing crops

No doubt genetically modified crops offer a wealth of future benefits. However, as the act is  still in its infancy, there are inherent risks associated with the development of technology based crop varieties that must be considered. 

In addition to providing smallholder farmers with easier access to relevant technology tools,  the act makes it possible for them to produce disease-resistant and drought-tolerant crops.  There are, however, concerns about how wealthy players will benefit more from this act. 

In accessing genome editing tools, costs must be taken into account. Multinational  corporations and large-scale farmers have an advantage over smallholder farmers engaging in  alternative agricultural systems such as organic agriculture due to the immense costs involved  in creating genetically edited crops. 

Since the technology breaks and bypasses natural reproductive barriers that occur in nature,  environmental concerns must be taken into account. During the development of the  technology, environmental groups criticised the technology for its harmful environmental  consequences similar to those of chemical or radiation-induced mutations.  

In addition, the process is followed by extensive field evaluations in target environments  before being delivered to farmers. As a result, only superior crops would be chosen rather  than accounting for all agronomic and consumer factors. 

Creating equal opportunities

The execution of the act is still in its infancy, so mitigating risks must be considered at this  stage. To ensure this is achieved, an effective approach must be implemented to ensure that  the technology is and remains accessible to all who will use it to democratise its benefits particularly resource-poor farmers and consumers already struggling under the cost of living  crisis. 

In light of the increasing importance of climate change in food security debates, this act may  play a critical role in protecting future generations from climate change consequences.  Despite the risks, when looking at the long-term benefits of genetic editing technology, the  ability to create resilient crops will mean that on a global scale, there will be a greater ability  to develop a sustainable, vital food supply. 

The Genetic Technology Act is still in the early stages of being implemented, so for now, it  appears we will have to wait to see just how innovative the act and genetically edited crops  will be.